The year is 1853, a Victorian painter William Holman Hunt has produced a painting called, The Awakening Conscience. Hunt at the time is a well-known Pre-Raphaelite, and one of the original co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Hunt’s painting echoes the themes the brotherhood explore, particularly focusing on the impact of change in a time where it was avidly occurring.
The subject matter of this painting consists of a simple meeting between a gentleman and his young mistress. The vibrant rich colours of red, gold and burgundy he uses in his painting make this narrative scene full of intensity and hidden meanings. The room is cluttered with things that seem extravagant and gaudy. The meeting occurring between the man and his mistress was favored hobby for a wealthy Victorian man to do, especially after he performed his duty of being at home with his family. This scene is in a closed space hidden away from the public eye.
However, what I find prominent about this painting is not the perverted man caving in to his desires, but rather the young mistress in the center who is looking to the open window with a sort of shock in her face. Her eyes are these wide dark saucers that light reflects into, her mouth agape as she looks upwards as if she has seen or heard someone calling her name. Hunt’s own strong religious beliefs are definitely seeping into his painting, the light from the window pierces through as an obvious allusion to God. This young mistress has at this moment realized her sin, whilst the wealthy gentleman is oblivious to her change in morality, her conscience has been awakened and she knows she can no longer live life in such a way. In Hunt’s book, Pre-Raphaelitism and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood he tells us his purpose of this piece of art work:
|"My desire was to show how the still small voice speaks to a human soul in the turmoil of life", (pg.347)|
I think that Hunt could be sympathizing with women who have endured, “the turmoil of life”, like the young mistress in the painting he has made. He is giving her a chance and showing us that the, “still small voice” of God can reach out to anyone who has committed sin. I think, by using the word, “small” Hunt is probably suggesting that religion has become a minuscule concept. Perhaps he is looking for the changes taking place in his time as the reason for this occurrence. In a Victorian news article titled ‘single life ‘from the, The Girls Own Paper the writers discuss the expectations of a single woman. They state that single women should be, “true to the virtuous and noble,” (pg. 1) and to be careful not to, “fall into the temptations especially beset for women,” (pg. 3). Which has happened to the woman Hunt has drawn here, but he does not lay all the blame on the mistress.
By including the wealthy gentlemen, he is slyly suggesting that they too are corrupt for ruining the lives of the women they involve themselves with. If you look to the wealthy gentleman’s gold glove, one plays on the piano as a symbol of his outward status as a sentimental gentleman, whilst the other glove is carelessly tossed out on the floor. I could be ambiguous in saying that this image certainly parallels the relationship he has with his mistress, he sees her as something he can use then throw away, without judgement. The way this man throws his glove away could also be a symbol of the way he throws away his morals. Whilst his mistress has heard God calling to her he is caught in a moment of lustful sin that blinds him from realizing his own faults, he is acting on a whim because his position allows him to. The gentleman in this painting reminded me of the character Henry Carson from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, both men seem to use their power to misguide the women they engage in relationships with. Henry's status allows him to arrogantly think that Mary is nothing more than article of ownership, the relationship asserts his masculinity because he has essentially conquered a right over her. Yet, Mary takes this right away from Henry, when she has her own form of an 'awakening'. This is caused by Jem Wilson who reveals his love to Mary and makes her rethink about the choices she has made.
If we take a closer look at the fierce detail of Hunt’s painting, we can see that everything within the composition is marrying each other to highlight the corruption that is taking place. The mistress is wearing a white gown, which in the Victorian era would classify as a state of undress. The red scarf around her white dress engulfs the white colour of it. This has a threefold meaning, as her purity has become stained by the wealthy gentleman the same way the distinct red scarf overwhelms the white dress. The man is therefore the source of corruption, as the relationship between them is one based beautiful things which all unveil to us his falseness.
Things I found in the painting that interested me:
- The scattered string across the floor reminded me of Greek mythology and the fates, who were goddesses that knew the destinies of everything. String is supposed symbolise life, and depending on how long or short it is it can also symbolise life’s ending. Perhaps the string parallels the young woman’s life, the wealthy gentleman is spoiling her and making her feel safe yet, he has the power to cut the bond and end her life metaphorically speaking that is.
- The Cat and the bird, the cat is a predator like the man is. Just as the cat draws its paw towards the bird, as does the man draw his hand around the mistress. He looks to her as an object he shuts away, yet never dreams of bringing her out into the public world. He keeps her locked in the cage he has built for her which certainly echoes the reality of women’s life at the time. However, the bird looks as if it is about to flee away as is the mistress, who because of her awakening now has the power to be set free if she desires.
The open window is the religious eye of God that penetrates through the painting. Even by painting in the reflection of the window in the mirror, Hunt is reminding us of the spiritual truth he believes in. He believes that God is all seeing and in a sense is warning his Victorian audience to think about their morals. Light here represents the mistress’s salvation and also acts as a symbol of hope, Hunt believes society can be saved and through his art find their own spiritual awakening. On page 349 of his book, Hunt says:
" I would guard against this danger with my respect..That truth, whatever it be, is above all price, and my desire is very strong...To make more tangible Jesus Christ's history and teaching".Overall Hunt’s morality tale exposes the sort of corruption that occurs from the impact of imperialism. The excess of change certainly comes with negative change as well as positive, which Hunt wants his audience to be aware of – he does not trust it and believes the Victorian societal values have lost all proportion. Yet, he also believes society does have the power to redeem itself.
Gaskell Elizabeth, Mary Barton. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2012. PrintPrimary Sources used:Hunt, William Holman, Pre-Raphaelitism and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. New York: The Macmillan Company; London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd. 1905. PDF.